“Man must rise above the Earth – to the top of the atmosphere and beyond – for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”
— Socrates, Greek philosopher (470 – 399 BC) –
A few days ago I learned, while idly browsing my Reddit feed with a discerning eye, that the bodies of caterpillars “melt” almost completely in the chrysalis before metamorphosing into butterflies. These pertinacious little larvae release enzymes called caspases that tear through the cells and proteins in their bodies, digesting them alive, resulting in bits and bobs of butterfly “ingredients” – a wing here, an eye there – all suspended in this brown anatomical gunk that was once a placidly crawling caterpillar.
Having taken accelerated biology classes before (albeit with some struggle), and having read extensive source materials about animal anatomy and physiology and reproduction, this seemingly integral piece of information shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Nature can be pretty damn metal, after all. But regardless, this newfound knowledge was disconcerting, to say the least. The very hungry caterpillar from my childhood had in fact turned into a very liquefied caterpillar by approximately page 22, and the classic picture book had diligently skirted around the details by distracting us with its one apple and two pears and three plums.
If we consider it carefully, there’s something oddly specific about this grisly phenomenon that doesn’t settle well with us. Perhaps it’s the unanticipated and offensive fact that these exquisite creatures, too often associated with divinity and beauty and grace – painted-ladies and winged blossoms of the sky – literally begin their lives by dissolving into a protein-rich soup. Perhaps it’s the absurdity of this single detail, masqueraded brilliantly by a cocoon of life, that is both perhaps the most vital part of a butterfly’s fundamental development, and the most fortuitously overlooked. Perhaps it’s that I’d grown up chasing butterflies with naked hands and a heart full of ardent fervour in Year One, and learning about the existence of caterpillars through a makeshift science course in Year Four, and dissecting their relics with a near-psychopathic curiosity in Year Eight, with no knowledge of the Great Meltdown whatsoever.
To me, butterflies were simple and schematic creatures. I regretfully concede that I was once a relayer of the slightly morbid joke “If I could be any animal, I would be a butterfly because they die in like two days”. But regardless, all throughout my childhood, I assumed that the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly was seamless, and plain-sailing. While my childhood innocence of “butterflies are divinely anointed leprechauns of celestial wonder” gradually withered and died beneath the unforgiving suns of time, an offshooting derivative of this special kind of childish innocuousness still remained. One that led me to believe that all beautiful things must have equally beautiful beginnings.
When I stepped onto the campus of Macleans College for the first time as a squeaky-clean Year Nine, it was a daunting experience. A myriad of badges regarded me with amused contempt from under striped collars and blazers, their polished surfaces and decorated domes reflecting my own age-induced inadequacy like a fairground mirror. Everything was too big, the lessons too comprehensive. My class, the accelerated “splinter group” of our year, certainly knew how many beans made five. Their collective capability was both parts influencing – rousing me from my armchair from which I have administered half-hearted activism for a past number of years – and simultaneously pressurising, a silent reminder that the landscape has changed: here I can no longer waltz in and expect to dominate the market. The sound of postpubescent laughter about memes I was “too young to understand” fizzed through the air like belligerent firecrackers and popped in my eardrums, launching my unworldly world into a vortex of deafening silence. On and on it went, ad nauseum. I had never, not once, been so acutely aware of my own juvenility before, and – in the words of the great honourable novelist Eleanor Catton – a film of soured breast milk indeed clutched at me like a shroud.
True, I was an arbitrary little caterpillar munching my way through my salad days, surrounded by an abundant universe of butterflies that both dazzled and confused me. But simultaneously, I became obsessed with getting older, wiser, and interpreting “walking across the stage” as the same as “legitimising my status, existence and purpose”. I was kind of fanatical in my hopes to refashion this natural hierarchy of age. To reorient the power dynamics…somehow.
So I will emerge, I told myself, earthing the first seeds of a five-year promise that would prove to be more difficult to break than keep. So what if I’m a junior? I can make a difference. After all, that’s kind of what caterpillars are supposed to do. The world is my chrysalis, and all I’ve got left is time. Right?
LMAO, SIKE! life exclaimed in my face, before pushing me back into my cocoon where I proceeded to be engulfed by waves of insecurity and self-doubt and questionable stress-relieving mechanisms – enzymes of impediment that tear into my body and turn me into a protein-rich soup of constituents supposed to comprise a fully-fledged young adult. “It’s all a part of growing up,” a voice whispered in my ear. “Everyone goes through this.” Nevertheless, persistent questions still flooded my mind. Ultimately, the anxiety of falling behind – and thus losing face – proved to abrogate the driving incentive of enthusiasm and motivation. Studying turned into a chore; unfortunately, it was a chore I did not always take under advisement. Nevertheless, for me, being told “it doesn’t matter if you’re at the bottom of the accelerated class; you’re still doing relatively well compared to the rest of the school” was, to put it plainly, infuriating. It antagonised me more than it was supposed to comfort me, and kindled resentment rather than rationale.
Many times, I ruminated over these half-hearted words of comfort like some sort of magic mantra that would lift away all my despair and private frustrations. However, I could not forget the fact that I was interned in a world where materialistic success is the predominant factor in determining one’s importance, self-worth, their amour propre… Any solace offered by people who weren’t me could only be mercilessly interpreted as the patronising and idealistic, albeit favourably inclined Marie Antoinette-esque qu’ils mangent de la brioche guidance of someone who fancies themselves capable of understanding what they’ve never experienced. This was most certainly untrue, but I did not know any better. So what comfort could I have found in knowing that there were people worse off than me? What comfort could anyone have found? As much as fourteen-year-old me made every effort to extend compassion to those in a more compromising position than myself, I could not draw a line of comparison between us. Something alerted me to the unfairness in such a juxtaposition. I don’t want to be compared. I don’t want sympathy—I want solutions!
Time skip to the present.
“What is mitochondria?” the teacher demanded from across the classroom, eyes burning into mine as if he somehow preternaturally knew that I spent last night watching The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu (praised be, fellow fans) instead of making SWOT notes. Our trusty biological generator was no longer just the powerhouse of the cell, for sure. Instead I became proficient in saying: “mitochondria is a double-membraned organelle found in large numbers in most cells in which the biochemical processes of respiration and energy production and adenosine triphosphate occur” – without a comma, in a single, scrawled, panicked sentence. The meanings of half those words escaped me. In an exam, out of three marks I receive two, for failing to address the cristae folding inwards to increase surface area. The turbulence in my mind jostled me awake from a lifelong dream of stability and safety and comfort zones. What have I gotten myself into? I asked myself, irrationally demanding an answer from my panicked, caffeine-powered brain. This wasn’t part of the master plan at all. How did I end up here, three years later, still a miserable-looking caterpillar munching on the same miserable-looking leaf?
And just like that, the world became a kaleidoscope of complexities, unprecedented obstacles, and very legitimate challenges we can’t even begin to imagine until we’re suddenly faced with them. A conglomeration of new branches opened up in the poorly-structured pick-a-path novel of our school days: leadership positions, labyrinthine relationships, comparing whose eyebrows are the “fleekest”, plus the imminent peril of being ostracised forever if we make a careless mistake that somehow is witnessed, documented, and held against us in the tribunal of life.
Our image matters. Our reputation matters. To keep those in check is prioritised beyond reasoning. To deny that you care about them is terminological inexactitude.
College is no fun, that goes without question. We simply aren’t conditioned to like anything that doesn’t resonate with our personal philosophies on how our lives should be – even if it may be better for our development in the long run. School is where voices and opinions accumulate in a conglomerative cacophony, everyone trying to get their own heard. It takes adjustment, acclimatisation. A caterpillar won’t like its first days in a chrysalis. It’s claustrophobic, cold, and probably smells like an expletive. I’d imagine if a caterpillar could talk, it would scream WHYYYYYYYyyyyyyyyyYYYYYYYY?!?! at some point during its pupa stage. Perfectly valid question for a creature building its own personal torture chamber. Yes – we pause, and think to ourselves – why indeed? But regardless of the reason, they kind of have to stick it out in that chrysalis. Just like we have to stick it out in school – even if we think we can’t do it. Even if we’re falling behind. Even if we simply don’t enjoy it anymore.
We are – undeniably so – a population of sullen, mistrustful youth, seeing distorted mirror images of ourselves and each other, while busy concealing our own inferiority complexes with self-deprecating jokes and a tacky smile. We’re supposed to feel disoriented and perplexed and a little bit insecure. We’re supposed to look at other people and silently contemplate how they obtained their present-day success – be it in the departments of academia, sporting achievements, music, social life or positive relationships – while simultaneously interrogating ourselves on why we haven’t been able to do the same. From the way our present-day society is structured, it leaves little room for real self-gratification. We’re bound to feel inadequate. No matter which rung of the social ladder you occupy, no matter how many Outstanding Scholarships you have achieved, there’s always going to be one day when you meet someone and think, Why can’t I be like this person? What am I doing wrong? And likewise, in all probability someone will meet you one day, and think: How can I procure even just one-fifth of this person’s success? What’s their secret?
Now imagine that some brave soul has approached you as you were idly walking to class, and blurted out the above question, seemingly out of nowhere. They gaze up at you with adoring eyes, sparkling with absolute respect and idolisation, cheeks tinged in the colour of anticipation and curiosity and slight embarrassment at the suddenness and honesty of their own query. How do you answer? While you’ve been busy comparing yourself to everyone else, someone has been comparing themselves to you. They watch your movements as you have been watching theirs, in silent esteem and outward indifference.
…Indeed, a caterpillar can’t hope to become its majestic counterpart if it doesn’t go through that dreaded pupa stage. If it doesn’t enfold itself within the hardened protein of a chrysalis and literally melt themselves down until it’s a butterfly. Caterpillars are born and bred as the trailblazers of the insect kind, the precursor to nature’s penultimate finest living works of art. And their very existence confirms the fact that beautiful things do not have beautiful beginnings – most of the time, their unimaginable beauty is transmogrified through unbelievable exertion. All those people walking across the stage in blazers and ties, wearing badges brighter than you believe your future is likely to be… They didn’t rock up to Orientation Day as golden children, outshining their peers, being splendid and marvellous with their talent and breathtaking beauty. They didn’t start their lives as butterflies. Success isn’t in our DNA – nucleotides and phosphate groups are.
However, with this point established, another more perplexing one is thus drawn to light. For what reason and purpose do caterpillars endure all that hectic misery and self-digestion to become a butterfly? Though we are not exactly enlightened of an answer, one thing’s clear enough for us to understand: “becoming a butterfly” is what nature has in mind for them. It’s what they’re supposed to do. At this point I must confess: I would very much like to reach back in time, grab Year Nine me by the shoulders, and literally shake some sense into her querulous, blindly ambitious brain: “Get your attitude right, you hopeless and inadequate caterpillar. Butterflies don’t emerge for other people. They do it for themselves; they do it because it’s a part of their lives. They don’t do it because they envy other butterflies, but because they know that it’s in their destiny to be one themselves. It’s written into their genetic code since they were a caterpillar, and it’s written in their fate that this is what they are to become!”
Yet that crucial fact is precisely something I’ve ignored for the past several years – something most of us have been ignoring. I’ve always withheld the belief that I must walk up that stage to bask in the glory of finally attaining one of several standards I’ve set on myself, otherwise I would fail as a person. The mistaken belief that badges entail personal honour, and that public recognition entail personal integrity. The demeaning hypothesis that 2.5k fake Instagram followers is worth spending 2,500 hours broiling in jealousy and self-doubt over. The detrimentally misplaced faith that we’re putting ourselves through this purgatorial stratagem in exchange for something substantial. Self-assurance? Attention? Public approval? Regardless what it is, it’s made us forget what this is supposed to be about.
A caterpillar single-handedly reorientates its fate from an underrepresented larva to the time-honoured English rose of the lepidoptera variety largely because it is, as one might say, their premeditated holy grail to transform and take flight. Not for the bees and insects observing them from the sidelines, silently passing judgement while blissfully unaware of the grisly details of their painful yet beautiful metamorphosis. Not for the slim chance that they might encounter a human photographer and get documented on someone’s Facebook cover photo or perhaps a section of National Geographic. Butterflies don’t overthink. They just spread their wings and fly. These things are far too trivial and much too inconsequential to even hold a candle to their true purpose – fulfilling their own destinies, as individuals. And so it’s about time we dropped the notion that we do things for the sake of other people. That we come to school for the sake of our families and caregivers (or, even more far-fetched, for the sake of our much beloved friends up on 33 Bowen Street, the Ministry of Education). That we complete our assignments and turn them in on time for the sake of our teachers. That we make friends and develop positive social relationships for five minutes of popularity, or some alternate, external factor that deviates from our true purpose in doing anything at all.
Going through the pain of emergence is so you can taste the fruits of your success and gain the nutrients from your own growth, not to feed it to all the self-entitled food critics in the world. Otherwise, you’ll be forever stuck in that dreary old chrysalis, forever stuck in that phase of being incomplete butterfly soup, wondering why you haven’t yet turned into the butterfly they promised you’d become.
It’s so easy to overlook the fact that we’ve got all the raw power and dexterity, all the finesse and flair, all the competence and capability we were born with and picked up as we grew older – so there’s no better guidance we can get than from ourselves. In simpler language, this isn’t about anyone else, or done on behalf of anyone else. We are all caterpillars in varying stages of development. And it’s in our blood, for our sake, that we’re going to work to become our winged counterparts. If you’re doing enough to please your harshest critic – yourself – then you naturally will not require a congregate of soulless shiny objects to reaffirm your validity. Badges and awards will crumble and rust, but your soul is what prevails through all darkness.
A few days ago I learned, while idly browsing my Reddit feed with a discerning eye, that I’ve been petrified in my cocoon for so long because I haven’t worked out the real reason why I was still in it. One day very soon in the not-so-distant future, you’ll suddenly realise that you’ve become the butterfly of your dreams, bold and brave and beautiful. Regardless of how many people are there to applaud your achievements, you’ve still got that degree under your belt, and those lovely Merits and Excellences on your wings. Most importantly you’ve built your character, and thus in doing so you’ve truly emerged. Only then will you realise, with a long-overdue rush of endorphins and a satisfied, nearly imperceptible smile, that it’s all been worth it.
Turn around and place a hand over your younger self’s head, or on the wall of glass that separates you, and tell them: Let’s make our future. Let’s make today’s dreams tomorrow’s reality. Write the fullness of time with chapters of epic proportions. Make mistakes, and make them again; when you finally take to the air, you will know you’re heading to the places you want to go. Conquer the world, but start by taking the plunge and conquering your mindset.
Now you are alone and omnipotent on the stage of life, stepping up to the grand podium to cut the ribbon of your future. The world is your fanatical audience, the past and present your loyal sentinels. There are no more critics here, only unconditional respect and fortification and love. Adrenaline is pumping through your veins, defeaning, but you’ve never felt more alive. Breathe. The universe is anticipating your great inauguration from the ridiculous to the sublime. Let the spotlight illuminate every cleft and crevice of your best fighting face, as the curtains open and the screaming patrons awaiting your debut wane into a distant, muted echo. The world is on your wings. Where will you take it?
Forget about algebra problems and not getting into premier sport teams. This is your emergence.
…Let the show begin.
…“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”